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Saving Your Skin

The Great Sunscreen Cover-Up

Although sunscreen-makers continue to make bold claims about their products, there are few answers to which works best. Government guidelines still aren’t in place, and even if they’re approved this spring, it might be more than a year before compliance kicks in. That means that you could get burned.

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Spring break is here, and summer is just around the corner, so you pop into a nearby retailer to grab some sunscreen. If the number of products—house brands, national brands, sports formulas, kiddie formulas, sprays and lotions—doesn’t turn you pale, reading the labels might.

Do you need sun protection factor (SPF) 5 or 55? What does broad spectrum coverage mean, anyway? Does all-day protection live up to that claim? And—although you won’t see them listed on the label—what about the use of nanoparticles? If you manage, somehow, to pick an effective sunscreen, don’t congratulate yourself just yet. Chances are that you might not be applying it correctly, according to recent research. (See “The Numbers Apply.")

STILL WAITING. Shopping for sunscreen might be easier after Food and Drug Administration, which regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs, finalizes sunscreen label changes that were proposed in 2007.

But don’t schedule your next day at the beach around FDA’s  decision: Some observers predicted that that would come by the end of 2009. It didn’t. Now, the final ruling is expected in May, according to FDA’s Shelly Burgess. Unfortunately, FDA gives manufacturers a year or more to comply after rules are adopted, and Burgess tells us that sunscreen manufacturers have asked for even more time to make all of the proposed changes. This means that at least into 2011—and perhaps longer—the key phrase for you will continue to be caveat emptor—buyer beware—when you shop for sunscreen.

The long-awaited FDA regulations would establish ratings for one type of product formulation, revise testing procedures for another type and eliminate restrictions on certain ingredients—some of which are permitted in products that are sold in other countries, Burgess says.

The proposed regulations also would cap SPF claims at “50-plus,” which means that any product that exceeds an SPF of 50 would be labeled that way. That’s a welcome change, because the “higher is better” mentality that has led to an increasing number of companies that market products that have higher SPFs—Neutrogena now touts a sunscreen that has an SPF of 100—doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Why? Sunscreens that have, let’s say, an SPF of 50 block just 1 percent to 2 percent more UVB sunburn radiation than SPF 30 does, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG), which is an advocacy organization that evaluates sunscreens.

At least products that have higher SPFs aren’t necessarily more expensive than those that don’t. The bigger price differences—typically $2 or more—are between house brands and name brands, and there’s no guarantee that a high-profile name brand is more effective than a house brand.

But a higher SPF means that a sunscreen has more active ingredients that can be absorbed into the body, EWG says, and that means more exposure to sunscreen ingredients that some experts view as potentially hazardous.

The Numbers Apply

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Labels such as waterproof and all-day protection might disappear, too, because of the proposed rules. According to FDA, products can’t really be waterproof or provide all-day protection. Burgess calls those claims potentially misleading.

If FDA’s rules make it off of the table in May, will any sunscreen-makers change their products—and use that as an excuse to raise prices—ahead of the compliance deadline? The makers that we contacted were mum about their plans.

SLATHERING IT ON. That silence is hardly surprising given the stakes. FDA estimates that about 3,000 over-the-counter sunscreen products (including makeup and moisturizers) were available in the United States in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available.  

Here’s the easy part: Ideally, all sunscreens should protect you from two types of ultraviolet radiation—UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays cause sunburn; UVA rays are linked to aging effects, such as wrinkling and sagging skin. Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin cancer, but SPF refers only to a product’s ability to protect you from UVB rays.

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